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DPS board 4-3 on FNE schools

Three new Denver Public Schools were approved for innovation status by the Denver school board in an early morning meeting that saw its members divided along familiar lines.

The board’s action could, however, trigger legal action by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

Approved for innovation status by a 4-3 vote were the Noel Community Arts School, the Denver Center for International Studies at Ford and the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello.

The innovation applications will now be forwarded to the State Board of Education for consideration when it meets May 11 and 12. Should they be accepted by the state board, it will bring to 10 the number of DPS schools granted such status since passage of the Innovation Schools Act in 2008.

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The trio under consideration at this morning’s session were slated for a vote at last week’s regular Thursday board meeting.

But board members Andrea Merida, Arturo Jimenez and Jeannie Kaplan pressed for more time – and were joined in that request by Mary Seawell, despite Seawell’s stated intention that night to ultimately approve the plan.

By this morning, nothing had changed for Merida, Jimenez and Kaplan while Seawell proceeded to vote, as promised, for the innovation status, along with Bruce Hoyt, Theresa Peña and board president Nate Easley.

Because of the unusual hour – 7 a.m. – and short notice for today’s session, only Seawell and Jimenez were present in the DPS board meeting room while the remaining five members teleconferenced in.

Schools part of controversial FNE turnaround plan

The three schools approved today are key components in the district’s controversial turnaround plan for Far Northeast Denver, a plan approved at a contentious board session in November.

DPS innovation schools

  • Cole Academy of Arts and Science
  • Denver Green School
  • Manual High School
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Early College
  • Montclair Elementary
  • Valdez Elementary
  • Whittier Elementary

In the pipeline

  • Noel Arts School
  • DCIS at Ford
  • DCIS at Montbello

The three board members’ resistance to approving the innovation status centered around a provision of the Innovation Schools Act that requires 60 percent of a school’s staff to have voted for the innovation plan and more than 50 percent to have agreed to waive union rules and regulations.

Because the three new schools do not have full staffs yet in place, such votes have not occurred. Instead, individual teachers, as they are considered for employment, are asked whether they accept the parameters of working under innovation status, which include a 20-percent longer school year and working as at-will employees.

DPS legal counsel John Kechriotis has assured the board that precedence for this situation was set with the prior approval of the Denver Green School and the Math and Science Leadership Academy. The academy is not an innovation school but, like the Denver Green School, was a new teacher-led school model approved before a complete staff was in place.

Kechriotis’s analysis was rejected today by the dissenting board members.

“We’re crossing into unknown territory, and I’m not comfortable with that,” said Merida, who last week urged a one-year delay.

Later in the meeting, Merida assailed the DPS Office of School Reform and Innovation, claiming it was pushed by the district’s central administration to pursue an approach that is an affront to the Denver teachers union.

Labeling it “union busting” and reminiscent of “Wisconsin-style” politics, Merida said it “offends the teachers who work with them,” adding, “I think we need to question whether we need an office that does that.”

Jimenez argued – unsuccessfully – for a vote to approve or reject innovation status for the two new DCIS schools be held among the staff of the existing DCIS school near downtown.

“This would be an attempt to comply, a practical solution,” he said, to what three of the board members view as questionable legal action by the board.

‘We as a body, again, are telling these kids that we’re deciding what’s best for them, we’re telling the community and the parents that they can’t have a say in this, they can’t have a vote,” he added, also branding the board’s vote as “a little bit of back-door, Wisconsin-style assault on workers’ rights.”

Denver union says legal action possible

At the meeting’s outset, Merida called attention to an e-mail sent by DCTA president Henry Roman and executive director Carolyn Crowder to board members and DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg, threatening legal action if the schools were approved.

That e-mail said, in part, “It is our opinion and the opinion of the Colorado Education Association (CEA) legal staff that granting Innovation Status to a school that does not have current teachers nor a current accountability committee in place and does not have the evidence necessary to show the process in SB 130 (Innovation Schools Act) has been followed would be in violation of the law.”

After hearing today that the schools were approved, Roman said “If they are not doing it under Senate Bill 130, I don’t know what kind of law they are using.”

Asked if legal action will be pursued, Roman said, “We are still in conversations with our legal department, and so we will find out soon.”

Kechriotis, the DPS attorney, did not sound worried, in part because he said the State Board of Education is typically given broad latitude in its interpretation and application of the law. The state board, which must approve all innovation applications, previously approved the Denver Green School.

He also said he believes any legal challenge to the latest trio of schools’ innovation status could have the effect of raising legal complications for the Denver Green School and MSLA, which former teachers union president Kim Ursetta helped create.

“It will be interesting to see how it plays out and I think they will reconsider and not file anything because, one, it will impact MSLA and Green,” Kechriotis said, “and I think they’ll realize the remedy is just to take a vote when staffs are in place, so what is the point of wasting all the time and resources and energy?”

Boasberg, reacting to commentary from the dissenting board members, said, “I regret the whole tenor and tone of today’s discussion. I think it is a little bit sad.”

But the superintendent underscored what he saw as the strengths of the innovation proposals:

“I’m extremely optimistic that these schools will be very successful, and will feed successful student growth. And, a year from now, we’ll be celebrating their success and these discussions will seem like a piece of distant history.”